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Authors: Sarita Mandanna

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The roe fawn pop out so sudden that we come to a dead stop and just gawp. There’s two of them, ’bout six months old I figure, although it hard to tell – these here French deer run pretty small. Not even a couple of feet tall these two, and right lively, jumpin’ ’bout the underbrush, stoppin’ now and then to twitch their noses in the air. James and I, it like we been turned to stone. There’s somethin’ so easy and carefree ’bout them. Somethin’ so natural, somethin’ we half ’member from before we got to the Front, somethin’ we ain’t seen nothin’ of for too long. Ain’t no
fear
, there just no fear in them.

We stand there and watch, how long I couldn’t say, as those deer babies play. This is beauty at its clearest, a perfect harmony which I ain’t never goin’ to figure out the chords to, but it’s okay, ’cause just knowin’ it’s there is enough. I likely been all kinds of lightheaded from the cold ’cause I blink and find there tears in my eyes. Them critters, they ain’t just fawns no more, but things of song and grace. In their dance lie all the dances of the world, that of dandelions through an open field, of a cypress tiltin’ into a flowin’ river and of a champion boxer sidesteppin’, cat-footin’ round a ring. We stand to one side and watch, and it feel like it’s there, right there, within reachin’ distance, the answer to all the questions ever wondered by anyone in the world.

The wind turns, a slight shift. The fawns stop, look ’bout and start to jump away, liftin’ their short tails. We raise our rifles, automatically, two shots goin’ off at the same time.

It’s James who go over to the carcasses. They small enough that he can carry them both in his arms. We walk back in silence. The gun batteries have become louder, or maybe it just that I notice them once more, the flash of their explosions pushin’ against the mist all the way.

When we get back, I go searchin’ around and dig up some old potatoes. I find a forgotten vegetable patch, damp and rottin’, but some of the beets don’t look too bad. Karan be workin’ his magic on good King George and he come through with a big pat of butter.

I get up a stew later that day, with the potatoes and beet greens, and boil up the eggs. The deer I roast under bricks, with some wild sage and butter. It missin’ garlic and there ain’t too much meat besides, but we act as if it a feast set for the Gods. Well, most of us anyhow. James don’t eat much at all, swiggin’ away instead at the wine, and the rum we been rationed. I pick at the meat; it seem to stick in my throat.

‘Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits,’ James say to me a few days later. For a minute, I think he talkin’ ’bout another hunt. The corner of his mouth lift, but there a worn look ’bout his face. ‘Don’t they do this down South? For luck,’ he explain. ‘If on the first of the month, “rabbits” is the first word you say, good luck is sure to follow.’

It is 1 December 1914. That afternoon, we ordered back to the Front.

It snow that night. Just flurries at first that stick to our canteens and the wood and wattle roofs of the dugouts, then it come down heavier and heavier, and I ain’t sure if it the snow that done it, or the generals sittin’ cosy, but firin’ from both our side and theirs drop off. The night goes blessedly silent. The snow get in our hair, our eyes, and we got to keep brushin’ it from the barrels of our rifles.

Still, ain’t one cuss or gripe to be heard up and down the line. We just sit there, nobody sayin’ a word, just leanin’ back and watchin’ the snow come down.

It’s only the next mornin’ that it occur to us. ‘Looks like we’ll have ourselves a white Christmas after all,’ say James.

The fightin’ ease off in the days that lead up to Christmas. It so cold I ’bout freeze my tail off, but I just been so thankful for the break in the gunfire, I don’t care if I freeze from head to foot and start pissin’ ice and shittin’ snowballs.

Finally supplies can come up through the lines, with the mail. Everybody pounce on parcels and letters. There’s care parcel after care parcel for Karan; Chevalier get nine letters from his wife and he drink them straight up like hot buttered rum. James look at me, quick like, and I know what he thinkin’. He wonderin’ how come there ain’t never no mail for me, but who gonna be writin’? Pappy’s long gone and it just been the two of us before that.

It never bothered me none before, but sittin’ here with only a canteen in my hands as folks call out news from their letters – someone’s woman gone and won the church bake contest, somebody’s kid had a birthday, someone else’s brother was right there at Fenway Park for Johnny Evers’ tie-breakin’, two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the fifth – I start to feel sorrier than a broke-tail dog.

James start to fuss ’bout in his parcels. ‘Catch,’ he say, and toss a tin of Fatimas at me. I ain’t in no mood for no charity, but before I can throw it back to him: ‘It’s from my wife,’ he say quickly. He tap the letter in his hand. ‘I’d written about you and your damn fool ways.’ He shrug, as if there ain’t no accountin’ for the ways of women. ‘She wanted to send you something for your Christmas stocking, I suppose.’

I’m only half convinced, so James, to show he tellin’ the truth, start to read aloud from his letter. ‘‘Jim says his prayers every night, without need of prompting. How I wish you could see him, the way his little rear sticks up in the air as he kneels beside his bed. He has two things that he prays for. The first is a magic carpet. The second, for his father to be home for Christmas.’’

James go silent for a moment as he read the rest of the paragraph in his head. He clear his throat. ‘Here it is – “I’m sending a few things that may be of use, and a tin of cigarettes, a woollen cap and two pairs of socks for your friend Obadaiah.”’ He look at me and shrug again. ‘She sent them.’

I turn the tin of Fatimas in my hands, tryin’ not to show how damn heart-pleased I am, as if it be a regular thing, like I got plenty folks out there to send me gifts all the way to France. I open the lid. The baseball card inside is of ‘Three Finger’ Mordecai Brown. I pass it round the others. Feel real good to have somethin’ of my own to show around.

It only when I look closer at the cap and socks that I see the initials, ‘J.A.S.’ stitched into the linin’ and over the toes. I grow real still as it hit me – his wife never sent me nothin’. These here things, they meant for James. The Yankee, he awful smart, I always known that. All that stuff he just read aloud from the letter, those words ’bout me were made up, those lines never written at all. James ain’t said nothin’ to his family ’bout me. The thought, it cuts deep. Here I am, figurin’ we be buddies, but I’m a fool is what, to think our friendship matter to him.

I bunch the cap, them socks, in my fist, all angry and fixin’ to return everythin’, but the look on James’ face stop me. He sit all hunched over his letters, rereadin’ them line by line.

They still gifts, aren’t they? Real gifts that someone thought to give me, gifts from this damn fool Yankee.
System D
, I tell myself.
System D. Now don’t you be no ninny, Obadaiah Nelson – powerful useful these goin

to be in this devil-spawn cold
. I stuff the cap and socks into my sack. The anger go quickly as it come. Although it still bother me, like a thorn pressin’ deep inside, the notion that he ain’t said nothin’ ’bout me to his folks back home.

It strike me then, sudden like. ‘How come you ain’t never talked ’bout your son before?’

He hesitate, then pull a photograph from between the pages of his journal. The little boy in the picture, he ’bout four or five years old. Barely knee high to a duck he look, sittin’ in a chair so big, so carved and grand, it just ’bout swallow him whole. His hair’s flip-floppin’ over his forehead as he looks into the camera, with a face the spittin’ image of his pappy’s.

‘Jim,’ the Yankee say, by way of introduction.

He don’t say nothin’ when I point out how much the boy look like him, but he smilin’ as he take the photograph back. I see the way his eyes soften too, as he rub a thumb along its edge, gentle like, back and forth.

SIXTEEN

December 1914

hristmas Eve, and the snipers on both sides gone silent. The rain of all mornin’ slowed at last to a drizzle, and come evenin’, even that small, drip-drip sound against the roofs of the dugouts stopped. The stars out early tonight; one, another, then some more all at once. Their light lie on the ground, blue and shinin’.

I’m in a dugout with James and some others, everybody of us huddled together in balaclavas and such. Rats be scratchin’ in the corners but we don’t pay them no mind. We just glad ’cause for a little while after it rains, the stink of the trenches die away. There’s a wet-clay smell, pleasant, like river-earth by the bayou. The branches roofin’ the dugouts, they still wet; they smell of pine.

We hear a sudden whisperin’ and hustlin’ over by the lookout post. The feel of the dugout change at once. Nobody say nothin’, but muscles go tight, ears strainin’ to tell from the sounds outside just what it is that headed our way. Night raid? Full-on attack?

‘Boche comin’ over to fill our Christmas stockings,’ I jest, to break the tension.

James spit a mouthful of chaw juice into the corner. All the anger coiled up inside of him, it right there in that stream, the juice comin’ out with such force that any rats caught in the way surely struck blind. I’m listenin’ hard for what goin’ on outside, but the joke come into my head anyway: Christmas Spectacular! Special show by Yankee James Stonebridge:
Three! Blind! Mice!

I know how the Yankee feel though. One night, just tonight, would’ve been good to have some peace. I can hear men rushin’ ’bout outside. We stay where we are, holdin’ on to the few moments we got in the dugout before the
alarme
sounds.

Karan burst through the entrance. ‘You’ve got to come see this!’ The tie of his precious robe is draggin’ loose in the mud but he don’t even notice. ‘The Boche . . . you have to see this,’ and he disappear outside.

That shake us up proper. There’s a right scramble as we rush to the lookouts. Sure bright tonight. I can see the rolls of bobwire real clear, the cemetery-quiet of No Man’s Land, all the way to the Boche trenches, and their parapets all done up with lights.

Wait – lights?

‘What the . . .!’ someone whispers.

Them lights, there so many, it look like a street from Storyville, the bar at Tom Anderson’s, all lit up and stretchin’ for half a block. I push closer to the gap in the sandbags. There’s
candles
strung all along the Boche parapets. Rows and heights of them, all lit and shinin’. I start to make out branches, and trunks, and I realise just what it is I’m seein’.

James breathe out sharply. ‘I’ll be damned.
Tannenbaums
?’


Tannenbaums
,’ echoes Karan. ‘Looks like the mail came in on that side of the trenches as well – the Boche have got themselves a holiday delivery.’

Christmas trees
. The Boche have gone and put out little Christmas trees all along their parapets.

Chevalier look like he been struck by thunder and lightnin’, as if he seen the Christmas miracle itself. James brush absent like at the bits of straw from the dugout floor stuck to his coat, eyes fixed all the while on those twinklin’, golden lights.

BOOK: Good Hope Road: A Novel
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